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AniMaytion Month: Rock and Rule/Strange Frame

Last year about this time I spent some posts focusing on works of science fiction, and this spring I’m kind of doing it again by default, except that this month, my particular interest is in animated productions.

And, in addition to that, I find myself in the position of having recently encountered two animated features that are, at best, cult classics in terms of notoriety, and both of them involve people in a post-apocalyptic scenario saving those they love through the power of rock and roll.

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Chronologically, the first one is 1983’s Rock and Rule, produced by Canada’s Nelvana Studio – the first English animated film produced entirely in this country, I gather. In a time after global war has left the world populated by animalistic humanoid mutants, Angel and Omar are a couple who dream of making it big as musicians. Angel has a real talent but Omar is selfish and insecure about his own success and they quarrel over exposure for their own songs. Angel is sought out by Mok, a sorcerous former superstar who tempts Angel with going solo. Mok has been searching for a special voice that will enable him to achieve a new kind of power – a horrible demon summoned from beyond. However, I would never have known this movie existed if it hadn’t turned up in the YouTube suggestions while I was watching the other one…

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In 2012, an award-garnering indie film called Strange Frame: Love and Sax came out completely under most radars. Centuries after the polluted Earth has been abandoned and humanity has colonized the rest of the Solar System, hereditary debt bondage and genetic engineering to make you better at a given job are the norm. Parker, a runaway middle-class saxophonist on Ganymede falls in with a debt-slave rebel, Naia. The two become a couple and form a subversive band. When Naia catches the eye of a recruiter for a big music producer, Parker finds herself turfed out as Naia becomes a brainwashed, sanitized superstar. Joining up with the crew of a DIY spaceship, Parker formulates a plan to defy the big fame machine, recover her beloved and get away from it all.

First off, it should be made clear that neither of these movies is meant for kids. I gather that it was a popular misconception that Ralph Bakshi made Rock and Rule; the use of rotoscoping does give that impression, I suppose. The movie sure isn’t shy about suggestive clothing – club dancers wearing the bare (ha, ha) minimum, the villain half-naked in a robe and Angel forced into an outfit on par with the Princess Leia slave bikini – and there’s a scene of Omar and Angel making out very energetically. Strange Frame meanwhile takes place in a Blade Runner-esque grungy future where fetishistic clothing is commonplace and Parker and Naia have sex two or three times in the run of the story – it’s not pornographic by any means but it is still pretty steamy. Plus the monster Mok summons in Rock and Rule is fundamentally disturbing.

Rock and Rule‘s voice cast aren’t big names, as far as I know, except for Catherine O’Hara in one scene. That said, the singing voices are quite big. Well, to be honest, the only one I knew was Iggy Pop, and that’s only because of the time he was on Deep Space Nine. He and one Lou Reed lend their voices to musical numbers by the villainous Mok, the singer Robin Zander does Omar and Deborah Harry does Angel’s singing.

Strange Frame, by contrast, first caught my eye precisely because of its cast: Parker, the heroine and narrator is voiced by Claudia Black, late of Farscape and Mass Effect 2, Naia is played by Tara Strong, Grenman, the captain of the DIY ship – the delightfully named Lone Mango – is Ron Glass, and Chat, the band’s drummer, is Alan Tudyk. Given the general look of the thing, two Firefly and one Farscape actors make perfect sense, really. Cree Summer, Tim Curry as the villain, and George Takei as the villain’s overseer round off one heck of an ensemble.

I can certainly understand why somebody thought that Rock and Rule was Bakshi’s doing. You can tell from how they move that the characters are rotoscoped over live performers at least some of the time, and the attention to detail is pretty impressive. Whoever was animating Mok’s face certainly cared about their work. It’s got more movement in it than some whole characters. It seems to be set in the far future with a new civilization having arisen long after the old one. Omar and Angel make out in a car that looks abandoned in a sort of campsite, the nearby big city is called Nuke York and features such as Mok’s airship, his power plant base and the hovering-shuttle transit system suggest islands of advanced technology in a sea of used future – Blade Runner again splattered across Mad Max, as it were. What’s kind of weird is the halfhearted way the characters are made to look like animals. If TV Tropes is to be believed, most of the main characters are meant to look like dogs, but they resemble dogs to about the same extent that Arthur resembles an aardvark. Angel just looks like a regular gal with a button nose if you don’t look too close. Mok is supposedly meant to be a cat, but I don’t see it at all. He looks like Count Dracula as played by Steven Tyler. Overall, the effect isn’t ‘these are cartoon anthropomorphic animals’ so much as ‘these are humans but something about them is weirding me out.’ That said, the animators pushed the boat out on the demon. It doesn’t stick with cliched demon imagery. Instead it goes the Eldritch Abomination route of depicting something that seems unused to having a physical form, and is in a constant state of hideous flux.

Strange Frame‘s animation is made in a style of stop motion with paper cutouts. It incorporates bits of old live-action movies and CGI-distorted live images for some of the backgrounds and vehicles. The character design is eclectic to say the least. The various genetically engineered persons create a colourful cast. Reesa, Grenman’s first mate, looks more like a hybrid of monkey and bat than a human; the three ‘Muses’ who advise Parker include a catgirl and a lady with ram’s horns; Atem, the band’s bassist looks like a werewolf and Chat the drummer has four arms. Parker is easily the most normal-looking. The grungy, orange-tinted scenery, megacity setting, corporatocratic society and whacky-tending-to-racy clothing styles evoke Blade Runner, Transmetropolitan, or Warhammer 40K Hive Worlds. The way ancient spare parts get used to build ships, and how some ships are built using hollowed-out asteroids as hulls was particularly nifty. The combination of digital and physical media – or appearance thereof – is reminiscent of the Neil Gaiman movie Mirrormask.

Neither film is a musical exactly, but music is nonetheless a key part of the story. Rock and Rule is, as I said, a bit of an all-stars lineup of its time. Lou Reed’s villain song for Mok is fun enough. The original Canadian version and American redub of this movie are apparently markedly different, because I found a standalone clip of Iggy Pop’s contribution, but in the original version’s upload I watched, it’s barely audible above the sound effects of our heroes dashing to the rescue. I’m innately wary of any story where somebody’s voice or talent is supposed to be earth-shattering, especially when it’s as literal as here, because it’s hard to find a real talent that lives up to that much hype. But to my pleasant surprise, Angel’s song, ‘Send Love Through’ – later reworked by Deborah Harry into the single ‘Maybe For Sure’ – is written and performed so well that you really could believe that it has the power ascribed to it. Certainly, it’s now been stuck in my head for over a week.

Music in Strange Frame is superb. The songs of Naia’s that get spotlighted are catchy, especially the one she composes in the first act. The only disappointing thing is that you feel like you’re only hearing portions of them. Strange Frame doesn’t seem to have a soundtrack album. The background music is also catchy as hell, with Jazz, electronic and other influences evident. The saxophone’s presence, as Parker’s instrument, gives the music real drive and emotion. The big chase scene at the end is especially good. The sci-fi sound effects are first rate, too. As before, some of the busier scenes might make it hard to notice what’s going on. According to the Wikipedia page there’s a Roger Waters song in the movie, but don’t ask me where.

Rock and Rule‘s story is, if nothing else, pretty original in concept, and the way that a quarrelsome couple can come together to vanquish evil through song is oddly moving, if a little cheesy. The only drawback is that the characters evolve by the flick of a switch, rather than gradually. Omar is hot-headed and selfish, storming off in a huff when Mok seeks out Angel’s solo talent, but we don’t really see enough of their life to know why she puts up with him. I think the relationship is meant to be seen as passionate but creatively fractious, but without enough context it almost looks abusive. It still drives a theme of your loved ones and your art being more important than your ego. Omar pulls a big damn heroes moment more because it looks cool in the movie than because it seems true to the character, while their other two bandmates actually make a rescue effort we get to witness. And that doesn’t actually accomplish much, except to get their drummer, somewhat an audience surrogate, into position. Omar’s character arc, such as it is, is served by Angel, despite her nominally being the main character. She doesn’t really have an arc. She doesn’t fall for Mok’s enticements of solo success, he kidnaps her. She stays much the same. Though it is cool that she’s a positive example to those around her, and she’s an active and intelligent character, it does seem like she’s doing a lot of the emotional labour here. Mok is a villain I like. Complex he ain’t, but cunning, grandiose, petty and diabolical, and the theme of fundamental goodness drives his downfall as well as the demon’s. But the plot has a sense of being rushed from point to point.

Strange Frame‘s plot is a lot better organized, with Parker’s narration keeping you on top of things. That said, some of the plot is communicated visually without being spelled out, but it comes across more as ‘we want you to interpret this’ rather than Rock and Rule‘s ‘we don’t have time to explain this properly’ vibe. Exactly how the villains’ evil plot works is a little unclear. They make an android duplicate of Naia but still keep her squirrelled away in stasis – I interpreted it as using the android as a conduit for her talent while locking away her rebellious personality. The other bandmates kind of fall by the wayside with little ceremony. In contrast to the sense that large chunks of plot and character are missing in Rock and Rule, Strange Frame seems to have a lot of plot elements that don’t go anywhere. I gather the original plan was to make a series out of it, and there are threads tending to indicate that. The parallel narrative with the AI installed on the Lone Mango barely interacts with everything else. It sort of reminded me of that ‘castaway’ metaplot thing in Watchmen. While the villain is vanquished, his overseers, represented by the voice of George Takei, are never seen, named, nor called to account. The rescue plan seems to go a little too easily, and the big chase scene seems oddly unimaginative, albeit visually enjoyable. That said, the ending, while open-ended, is positive and satisfying, and the movie defies the increasingly infamous Dead Lesbian trope!

It might be obvious by now that I like Strange Frame more than Rock and Rule. Strange Frame‘s dialogue and voice acting are excellent, funny, heartbreaking, and clever. I had to laugh at Claudia Black bringing us a whole new set of sci-fi fake swear words after her tenure on Farscape. The story’s better constructed, and the characters are more varied and interesting, with almost everybody in it a person of colour (when they look human) a sexual minority, or both. I like the setting, a future civilization spanning the Solar System, like the Expanse or Cowboy Bebop. I like the artistry of the animation, which is quite unlike anything I’ve seen.

I’m not saying I don’t like Rock and Rule. Apart from its Canadian background, it’s still an great archetypal story, however haphazard, and its animation style gets me in the nostalgia somewhat. The imagery is quite imaginative. Despite the comparisons to Bakshi, I actually thought some of the scenery was akin to Studio Ghibli’s style. It’s just that if I had a choice of which one to push to friends, Strange Frame would be – and indeed, is – first in line. I recommend it first for story, characters, voice acting, progressivism and general weirdness. Rock and Rule‘s weirdness seems more unintentional than Strange Frame‘s. For music though, for me, it’s a dead heat, I’m glad to say, and it feeds this weird fascination I have with stories about fictional bands I was previously feeding on a diet of Jem and the Holograms.

You can rent Strange Frame on YouTube and Rock and Rule has been running the bootleg circuit so long I don’t think anyone cares anymore, so it too will pop up on YouTube time and time again, so check them both out, if you like.

Meanwhile, in the interest in getting that song out of my head, here it is in a fan-edited video so you all have to hear it too…

 
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Posted by on May 3, 2017 in animation, Movie

 

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Legend of Korra: You Gotta Deal With It!

WARNING: I’ve marked where the spoilers start in this article but I can’t be responsible for the linked material!!!

I am disgraced in my tardiness. 2014 ended with one hell of a fictional bang and I’m left to play catch-up.

Of course, we remember that what’s likely to be our last adventure in Sir Peter Jackson’s Middle Earth. But one that isn’t perhaps as widely-known but at least as significant occurred about the same time, and is still sending shockwaves through the fan communities: the finale of Avatar: the Legend of Korra!

To be honest, I’m not sure if this is an official poster or a piece of fanart.

If you regularly undertake to read this blog, then you’ll remember that waaay back I wrote a first impressions column on the first episode of Legend of Korra, successor of the animated series Avatar: the Last Airbender. Both are populated by four Nations, each defined by members of their society with the power of ‘bending’ the elements – able to master a telekinetic martial art over air, water, fire or earth. And into each generation is born the Avatar, able to manipulate all four elements, and bound to maintain peace and balance in the world.

As previously established, Legend of Korra takes place 70 years after the first series, with the reincarnation of Avatar Aang in the person of Korra, a teenaged tomboy, excellent in combat and passionate about justice, but inexperienced in social and political matters, sheltered and initially lacking in the spiritual serenity that defined her predecessors.

She travels to Republic City, the young nation which serves as a Geneva-like middle ground between the four ‘Bending’ Nations.

Korra confronts anarchists, revolutionaries, terrorists and fanatics, all threatening Republic City, the peace and safety of the Nations, and the very balance between the material and spirit worlds. Korra must draw on her own strength, those of her past lives and most particularly of her cadre of friends and mentors – including a beautiful young captain of Industry; Aang’s own son, Tenzin; her teammates on a competitive bending team, and the chief of police, descendant of the metal-bending master Toph, from the last series.

Bryan Konietzko and Michael Dante DeMartino, the showrunners, wrote the Last Airbender Series for a target audience of 10-12 or thereabouts. The Legend of Korra was written to keep pace with the advancing age of that demographic. The characters are almost all over 16 this time. The content is also a lot more intense – which is saying something as Avatar: the Last Airbender was set in the climax of a hundred-year war in which many of the characters had suffered loss. Words like ‘death’ and ‘kill,’ traditionally off-limits in kids’ shows, come up reasonably often, and depictions of aggressive hand-to-hand combat, torture and a few just-barely-offscreen violent deaths take place.

Combine that with some of the big political ideas underlying the show, and I can see why I’ve heard it described as ‘Game of Thrones for kids.’ Korra moves in the corridors of power in the city, and into the unpredictable landscapes of the spirit world to try and avert disasters of geopolitical upheaval, the release of the ultimate dark spirits, and a threat to the Avatar line itself, all the while suffering personal heartache, social setbacks and terrible trauma.

As my summary may indicate, this show was structure differently than the Last Airbender: the first series distributed one year of adventures across three seasons, working toward one endgame. Korra, meanwhile, had a different ‘Big Bad’ every season, and the time gap between seasons varied from six months to as much as three years in the space between three and four.

This affords a rather different scope for storytelling, although equally it has the same consequence as it has for other shows with that approach, like Buffy the Vampire Slayer: one Big Bad is not equal to another. With the original series, one continuous dramatic arc meant that things only got better. In Legend of Korra, the quality wavers more because trying to start ramping up to a high drama level over again from scratch produces inconsistent results.

Right out of the gate the series seemed to pick up some bad habits: not least, the introduction of a love triangle for no better reason that custom and tradition for teen drama. For a show trying to be more mature and serious than its predecessor, it’s funny how the humor actually seemed to get more juvenile and goofy – Bolin’s character is the vehicle of a lot of this and it tends to spoil rather than lighten the moments.

Season two was the low point. The goofy, arguably slightly creepy comic relief and the soap-opera elements were compounded by the destroy-the-entire-world villain and a number of ‘ancient secrets’ conjured up to advance the plot.

Part of the problem is that Korra was originally intended to be a miniseries, and the seasons are shorter than the Last Airbender’s. This means that the stories, complex as they are, have to proceed rather briskly, so that the themes, as strong as they are, often feel as if they aren’t followed through, and some decisions the characters have made are never really hashed out and dealt with fully.

The focus on Korra’s romantic entanglements makes passing the Bechdel Test less of a slam-dunk than the original series, though it still does it. Beyond that, the limited time per season means that only so many encounters can be written in. This means that Korra can’t always make the most of the exceptional ensemble cast for the range of character moments of its predecessor. In addition, an opportunity (one vaguely foreshadowed in the first episode) for Korra to become a grass-roots figure in the midst of these urbane politicos was missed by the necessity of her always keeping those politicos’ company. It also cost some realism and wasted space – in particular the characters seem to spend the three-year time skip in a holding pattern when in a longer format, some wonderful stories could have filled the space.

It also means that a lot of the themes sometimes seem a bit chopped-off. They’re there but sometimes it seems like they don’t follow through clearly to the end of a season, and don’t always seem to translate directly into affecting the world or the characters’ approach to things. In particular I feel as if the question of the Avatar’s role in the ‘modern’ Avatarverse never gets a satisfactory answer. Some others are just repetitive – how many times does Tenzin have to learn a lesson about being a real mentor, anyway?

But, in truth, a lot of these flaws are so egregious partly because of the sheer dazzling number of things that this show does right!

Legend of Korra is deep, serious, but fun, action-packed and laced with the kind of emotional punch that helped mark its predecessor. It honours its legacy, and characters who have lived this long appear only when it both tickles our affections and serves the plot.

It does the things that made the old series stand out: a plethora of interesting and multifaceted characters, including women and girls, characters of colour, strong characters of all ages, complex and understandable villains and surprisingly hard-hitting stakes, meaningful suffering and emotion. Korra has the additional virtue of being a character with atypical body type: she’s exceptionally buff and masculine-looking for a heroine – not for no reason does a lot of fan art depict her with a very ‘butch’ fashion sense. And it upgrades in intensity and seriousness from the last show – and I’ll point out that that show had an episode where a concentration camp survivor goes on a vengeance spree.

The most marked thing about it is that each of the villains succeeds in being sympathetic – something the old show excelled at – but also being remarkably reasonable and persuasive. Driven by a distrust of authority, a hatred of inequality or a belief in a better world, they’re not evil, just extremist, and the moral, though handled a bit haphazardly at times is one that supports moderation, compromise, and democracy.

The Avatarverse also has a strong sense of history, and that’s been maintained. The world has advanced about as much in 70 years as you’d expect, and we’re in the equivalent of the Roaring Twenties. Cars, radio broadcasting, air travel, and the economic highs and lows that come with madcap capitalism are all in there. Moreover, strong allusions are made, not only to modern terrorism and anarchism, but also to things like the Bolshevik movement, the Chinese Cultural Revolution and the advent of the Atomic Age.

The introduction of the Spirit World as a more active story element was a little worrying, since it tends to be distressingly arbitrary and twee in its design and a source of borderline Deus Ex Machinas (still not clear on the plural there), but never at the expense of its value as a counterbalance and mirror of the ‘human’ realm. Plus it’s a charming homage to Studio Ghibli movies like Princess Mononoke.

Okay, let’s catch our breaths here. It’s no small wonder, with the sheer amount of depth and creative energy DiMartino and Konietzko have poured into this that the series is beloved by everyone from its target audience to their parents to random twenty-somethings like me. It evokes the quality character-driven cartoons of the Milennial childhood like the DC Animated Universe, Gargoyles and Sailor Moon.

Now, we’ve discussed the inclusion of female characters and characters of colour, something of a specialty of this team. Now comes the point where things got really intense. Much has been written about this already, but I nevertheless caution for SPOILERS:

Things were off to a good start when my hated love triangle turned into a friendship between the two romantic rivals – Korra and Asami Sato. That actually cleared up my biggest irritation with the show pretty well. I was also pleasantly surprised that it was depicted as being okay with breaking up with your first relationship for good – as opposed to neatly pairing everybody off in the Last Airbender series. Indeed, lots of successful and well-developed single people have positive arcs in this show.

But now for the big one, the one that made the whole internet explode: after hints, foreshadowing and fan interpretation over four seasons, it is confirmed that Korra, ahem, bends both ways!

Terrible jokes aside, this was huge. Look at the reaction shots. Everybody flipped out, and overwhelmingly positively so.

When word first reached me, I was skeptical. If it was left ambiguous, up to the fans to interpret, then in mine and a lot of books it didn’t really count. I feared what I was about to see was an example of waffling and queerbaiting instead of true representation.

Well, the final scene was pretty on the nose, but to top it off the creators confirmed it flat-out shortly afterward! They made it as clear as the Standards and Practices of Nickelodeon let them. They pushed it as far as they could and then some.

Now, everything you’ve read so far might give the impression that Legend of Korra was very politically charged for a kids’ show. I suppose in a sense, but really? What the creators themselves said about it is really what it comes down to: if you’re going to tackle meaningful and demanding material, give it the respect it bloody well deserves.

And that includes representation. It baffles me when people react with indifference or hostility to this kind of thing. People of colour exist. LGBT people exist and I, as a straight, white cismale want to see them included, because they’re my friends and fellow nerds, too! I want to see their stories. And it took a kids’ show to even begin to push boundaries that few ‘grownup’ shows have the gall to do with any conviction!

So the Legend of Korra isn’t perfect. The creators freely acknowledged that they aren’t paragons of representation –  I’ve always found it a bit odd that the actors aren’t as diverse as the characters, I must say – but it was great. It does young people a great compliment by giving them something fresh, original and intelligent, and it speaks to those of us old enough to see the full extent of the subtext and imagine more – Avatar: the Last Airbender has the highest number of fanfictions under the ‘Cartoon’ listings on fanfiction.net.

The animation is gorgeous, the choreography thrilling, the music beautiful, the characters magnificently written and acted, the story is epic, the themes deep and intelligent and bold. It reaches high, and misses sometimes, but ye gods when it counts, it reaches higher than most! It is a worthy successor to Avatar: Last Airbender and well worth the attention of anyone of any age!

And, let’s face it, the star couple at the end are just so darned cute!

“Some Nickelodeon executives were worried, says Konietzko, about backing an animated action show with a female lead character. Conventional TV wisdom has it that girls will watch shows about boys, but boys won’t watch shows about girls.
During test screenings, though, boys said they didn’t care that Korra was a girl. They just said she was awesome.”
 
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Posted by on January 26, 2015 in Television

 

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Star Trek: Vanguard: Too Little, Too Late

It is difficult to overstate how much of a Trekkie I was as a kid. For kids these days, they start with Harry Potter and work their way through Percy Jackson and the others. For me, as soon as I was done with Redwall I made a beeline for Star Trek novels.

The Star Trek television series has spun off into a vast range of novels and comics, telling further adventures of the various crews, telling new stories in the same universe, and in a few cases performing crazy inter-fandom crossovers, including with Doctor Who and X-Men. Really, I couldn’t make this up…

Unlike the Star Wars Expanded Universe, however, Star Trek licensed materials aren’t integrated into one enormous canon – thank heavens – so one can read any of them and not have to worry overmuch about some key detail that was in some other book you know nothing about.

But I’d gone off them years ago. Indeed, as I’ve said before, the current state of Trek has often left me feeling that the whole franchise has had its day and should be laid to rest.

That said, my curiosity was piqued when this article regarding a particular recent Trek novel series happened by, in which the writer, David Mack, eloquently defended his inclusion of a lesbian relationship in the text.

Star Trek made its mark in large part from social commentary, especially in the Original Series. But as popular sensibilities progressed, Trek did an inconsistent job of keeping pace. By the time that LGBT rights arose as the next important social cause the franchise seemed to lose its nerve, and only a halfhearted handful of episodes addressed it, and there were no gay main characters in any series.

So I was intrigued to investigate this work that might have outdone the shows.

The first book in the series

Star Trek: Vanguard is a hexology taking place in the Taurus Reach – or the Gonmog Sector or the Shedai Sector depending on who you’re talking to – an unexplored region of space bordered by the Federation, the Klingon Empire and the Tholian Assembly. The Federation and the Klingons are in a tense race to claim as many new planets as possible. The Tholians, meanwhile, are getting leery at both but also don’t seem to want to claim the region themselves. They fear something in the Taurus Reach, an ancient power from their earliest history, which explorations by the Klingons and the Federation threatens to unleash.

One of the things that originally put me off Star Trek novels was the matter of voice: I’ve read few that, to my taste, convincingly capture the mode of speech of the characters. A lot of the time, all of the characters ‘sound’ the same, and just dispense exposition to each other.

The Vanguard series takes place, mostly, on Starbase 47, or Vanguard Station, the space station that is Starfleet’s main post in the Taurus Reach. The crew of the Enterprise only appears briefly to ‘hand off’ the story to a new crop of characters, giving the authors freedom to invent new voices.

Vanguard is duly populated by a huge cast: Commodore Reyes, the conflicted and secretive commander, his girlfriend and local Starfleet legal eagle, the genially cantakerous Doctor Fisher and his colleague Dr. M’Benga (a one-off character in the Original Series) and the eccentric but sagely Federation ambassador, an alien named Jetanien. There’s also the cold but deeply conflicted Vulcan intelligence officer, Lieutenant Commander T’Prynn, and the assets she runs in the Taurus Reach: Tim Pennington, the hapless journalist, crusty old smuggler Cervantes Quinn, and Lurqal, known to most as diplomatic attache Anna Sandesjo, a deep cover Klingon spy, who is T’Prynn’s double agent, and her lover. There’s also an Orion crimelord, the ambassadors of the Klingons and the Tholians, a Starfleet archaeologist in charge of chasing down the the mystery of the Reach, and the crews of the starships stationed at Vanguard, and the local Klingon and Tholian commanders who they tangle with out in space. Oh, and the Romulan ship which got a couple of chapters spent on it and then went away again…

The book format allows for a much greater variety of aliens than the shoestring budget of the Original Star Trek. Ambassador Jetanien is the most alien of the main characters, described as somewhat birdlike. While the lack of an EU canon means that every writer has a different way of doing this, the books do a respectable job of lending some nuance to the traditionally somewhat one-note races like the Klingons. They also seem to go out of their way to make the human crew as diverse as possible. The range of starships is also more diverse.

The fact that the action has as much to do with negotiation and investigation as with blowing stuff up is very Star Trek. At times it almost reads like procedural fiction. The story of peril on the frontiers of discovery is classic Trek, and the hidden danger somewhat Lovecraftian.

The character drama is what it’s mostly about. The overriding theme that jumps out at me is the impact of responsibility on one’s personal health and morals: it threatens to break some characters, like Reyes and T’Prynn, but elevates others, like Quinn and Pennington. Their suffering, their thought processes, all make the story go.

Regrettably, while it has much thematic and storytelling merit, it also suffers from a number of drawbacks. A lot of them are fairly normal Star Trek ones. The starship du jour in Trek is always the only one in the area. You’d think that Vanguard, given what a hot potato it is, would have more starships on hand. I think it wouldn’t have killed them to sit down and some up with some numbers to explain why Starfleet is always this stretched.

Given the fact that canon isn’t all that big a deal, I also found it faintly annoying that they felt the need (taking their cue, I believe, from a late episode of Enterprise) to spend any length of time contriving an in-Universe explanation for the change in appearance of the Klingons between the Original Series and the rest of the franchise. Don’t bother. We fans know it was just because of how little money the show had, and the limits in the technology. Just pick which look you want to use. It’s fine, we’ll go with it…

The other specifically Star Trek problem it has is being subject to many hands. The first and third books are written by David Mack, but the second was written by Dayton Ward and Kevin Dilmore. Mack’s writing style, while prone to purple prose at times (‘the sting of love’ and similar phrasing), is much clearer. I can barely remember anything about the middle book, Summon the Thunder, because the prose was so thick. Similarly, I sometimes had to cast odd looks at the editing. One remark is made about not being ‘oblivious of peril’ whereas I usually see it as ‘oblivious to peril.’ You also usually type a ship’s name in italics, as in starship Enterprise, but in these books they persist in writing it Starship Enterprise, as if that were the full name. You wouldn’t write Aircraft Carrier Lexington or Battleship Potemkin. Okay, bad example…

Having gotten halfway through the series though, most of all it seems too dense. There’s actually too many characters, and in a few cases some are introduced, given backgrounds and relationships and then have nothing done with them, as in the case of the Romulan crew who show up for a few chapters and then evaporate again. In a lot more cases, they needed to try harder to pick distinctive, punchy names so I don’t lose track of who’s who. Some of them are way more interesting than others for me, but whichever ones you favour, it’s difficult to get enough of those ones, and when some of them don’t seem to go anywhere, it stretches one’s patience. Say what you want about David Weber or Jim Butcher, they may bang on a bit but stuff can usually be counted on to happen.

As far as the character drama goes, my gripes with that might be partly my own fault. The publicity arising from including a same-sex couple led me to think it would be a main part of the story, and I probably got myself excited about it.

No, not like that! Still, it is hard not to get cynical about the fact that if a male sci-fi writer – and I do not except myself in this – is going to break with the herd and put in a same-sex relationship, he chooses a lesbian one. It might be thought safer, or maybe writing attraction to a woman, even in another woman character, is easier for a hetero male writer. Then again, arguably Star Trek’s greatest weakness was that it could never reconcile its mandate of social commentary with its fondness for cleavage.
Part of T’Prynn’s background is a condition, rooted in a sort of telepathic injury, that denies her the “release of Pon Farr,” the Vulcan mating cycle, and the resulting emotional turmoil (Vulcans are all cool and logical, of course, but it is something they have to work at) is part of what drives her shared passion with Lurqal. When it was first introduced in the TOS episode Amok Time, Pon Farr happened to male Vulcans, but that gradually got retconned in the name of sexy fanservice.

For what it’s worth though, it isn’t belaboured for titillation. The story cuts tastefully away when things are about to get steamy. There’s some pillow talk and commitment angst between T’Prynn and Lurqal, but the story isn’t littered with explicit love scenes.

But for my money, the relationship isn’t explored much either. We don’t learn how they met, or how their relationship evolved, or what it is exactly that they see in each other. Call me crazy, but I was hoping for an actual love story. I was particularly looking forward to a study in the interplay between love and logic in the Vulcan psyche. I freely admit that I would have been drawn to the sexy aspects, but even that would have been better for being portrayed respectfully between well-written and interesting characters.

The worst of it is, just as their personal and professional relationships reach a crisis, out of the blue, a SPOILER happens: Lurqal is killed off.

It was disappointing because the character development they’d had until then seemed suddenly for nought. But it also played into a dynamic that it disappointed me to see the writers succumb to: Tropers call it the ‘Bury Your Gays’ cliche. The way gay couples, for whatever reason, are seldom allowed happy endings, or indeed lives: Silhouette and her girlfriend in Watchmen, Tara and Willow in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Renly Baratheon and Loras Tyrrell in Game of Thrones, or the lesbian couple in that one episode of House, where they had to sacrifice one newborn baby to save the other, and of course the hetero couple’s baby is the one that lives, the pattern is alarmingly consistent.

Like I once said about the ‘Women in Refrigerators‘ dynamic, it isn’t that this one instance is objectionable (although I think it is) so much as that the regularity with which it happens is…really quite creepy. You were doing so well there for a while, Mr. Mack.

I suspect that I won’t be seeking out the rest of the series. They have so much going on, but it all turns into white noise. If they’d streamlined the subplots, and maybe got one writer committed to the whole thing, it would have been much more accessible and engaging. In the end, it’s trying to be a political thriller, a military sci-fi, a buddy comedy and a star-crossed romance all at once and doesn’t do any of them justice. The dialogue is pretty decent, the mystery intriguing, the characters well-written, but they’re crowded in too tight, and the one thing that set the story apart in terms of pushing old boundaries ends up fizzling out.

Star Trek, it was nice to meet up for old time’s sake, but the fire’s just gone out…

 
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Posted by on October 7, 2014 in Book

 

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